What's in a Word?

Pondering word play and power in The Daily Sentinel

Page 5 of 132

On safari

By Debra Dobbins
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Recently a friend jokingly asked me to encourage the newsroom to refrain from printing any more stories about violence in Nairobi (see May 17 article) because he will pass through Kenya's capital soon in order to go on safari. I ruefully replied that I could make no promises.

In the original sense of the word, this gentleman will be on safari even before he lands in Africa.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “safari” is a Swahili word which meant “journey, expedition.” That came from Arabic, “literally 'referring to a journey,' from safar 'journey.'” The word became a full-fledged addition to English in 1890, according to the same dictionary.

Nairobi is about 9,000 miles away, so this world traveler will be in airports or in the air for quite a few hours. I imagine he will leave Colorado early on one day and arrive in Africa sometime in the morning of the next day.

Nairobi is also nine hours ahead of us. After likely not grabbing much shut-eye on his journey there, he'll need to force himself to stay awake until evening falls so that his body clock can begin to sync with local time. I'm sure he'll do fine, especiallly since he recently returned from Bhutan and India. As a citizen of the world, he's used to such adjustments.

I've never been on safari, so the only advice I can give him is to learn from the experience of W.C. Fields:

"Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water."

Big cats are among the spectacular sights of a safari.
Photo special to the Sentinel


Hardy travelers

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Prince William and Prince Harry of England have Facebook accounts. If they wish to send a message to others, they, like so many of us, can do so almost immediately. I bet they're on Twitter and Instagram, too.

Many of their ancestors, of course, found it more challenging to send messages, particularly those concerning matters of state. They had to rely on trusted emissaries to relay important information and/or speak out on their behalf. Those people were called, among other appelations, envoys.

The word “envoy” came into English in the mid-17th century from the French word envoyer, according to Webster's. That French word derived from the Latin words in (in) and via (way), the dictionary also notes.

That makes sense when one considers the vastness of the centuries-long Roman Empire. (William and Harry surely have traveled on the vestiges of old Roman roads in their country.)

To paraphrase a famous proverb: All roads led to Rome. “At the peak of Rome's development, no fewer than 29 great military highways radiated from the capital, and the Late Empire's 113 provinces were interconnected by 372 great road links,” according to Wikipedia.

The job of an envoy back then must have been considered prestigious, but not without its drawbacks. Each envoy probably had to traverse rugged roads, rivers and/or seas to carry out the mandates of a Roman ruler.

Envoys likely spent more time on the road than at their destinations and then, of course, they had to return home. These hardy and diplomatic travelers probably understood all too well what Ralph Waldo Emerson would wisely observe centuries later: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Leptis Magna, a site of Roman Empire ruins in Libya
Photo special to the Sentinel

Roman bridge at Pont du Gard, France
Photo special to the Sentinel


Bridge builders

By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

“Pontificating” is an understatement, but that's likely part of the cartoonist's intended humor. “Ranting” seems more accurate.

“Pontificate” means “to speak or act in a pompous or dogmatic way,” according to Webster's. The word reflects no small measure of irreverancy, as it has evolved from “pontiff,” a word used as a synonym for a bishop and “more particularly to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope or 'Roman Pontiff,'” according to Wikipedia.

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the meaning of the word in its verb form meant “to assume pompous and dignified airs, issue dogmatic decrees” in 1825. That was just seven scant years after it came into English in 1818 as “to act as a pontiff.”

As Rodney Dangerfield might say, some people just couldn't get any respect.

As a noun, “pontificate” came into the language much earlier – in the 1580s, according to the same dictionary.

“The English term derives through Old French pontif from Latin pontifex, a word commonly held to come from the Latin root words pons (bridge) + facere (to do, to make), and so to have the literal meaning of 'bridge-builder,'” according to Wikipedia. “This may be only a folk etymology, but it may also recall antique tasks and magic rites associated with bridges.”

From the Latin root word pons, we also have “pontoon,” a flat-bottomed boat. Pontoons positioned together create a temporary bridge. “Pontoon bridges have been in use since ancient times,” according to Wikipedia.

I wonder why the ancient Romans used two root words meaning “bridge-builder” to describe a high-ranking member of clergy. Difficult to say, but perhaps they saw such a person endeavoring to be a “bridge” between fellow mortals and God.

Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind.

"Bridge over Troubled Water," 1969
Simon and Garfunkle



By Debra Dobbins
Thursday, May 15, 2014

I once applied for a secretarial position that would have included working as a “steno” for the Central City Opera's board of directors.

Despite having shorthand skills acquired in high school, I didn't get the job. That was disappointing, but other professional opportunities came my way — a reminder that life's setbacks may actually lead to better experiences. At any rate, I never got to join the ranks of “stenos,” shorthand for those who know stenography.

The art of stenography seems quaint these days, given our ability to easily record voices. Being able to dictate letters into my smartphone and see words converted into writing still amazes me.

We have other “almost lost” forms of communication, as well: Morse code, the symbolism of maritime flags and phonetic alphabets immediately come to mind as examples. Of course, the Victorians' use of floriography seems defunct, too.

References to these old but still effective forms of communication, however, do crop up in our modern culture. A fun one is found in a popular song (even here in America) by Norwegian singers and brothers, Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker: “What does the fox say?”

But if you meet
a friendly horse
Will you communicate by

Photos special to the Sentinel



By Debra Dobbins
Tuesday, May 13, 2014


This line comes from Act II, Scene 2 of “Hamlet.” Over time, the highlighted phrase has come to mean “a thing appealing only to a highly cultivated taste,” according to Webster's.

Photo special to the Sentinel

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